Thursday, February 3, 2011

Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight

First Photo Released of Heath Ledger as The Joker
            I remember the polarizing Internet reaction back in July 2006, when it was first announced that Heath Ledger was cast as the Joker. A lot of people were skeptical that the actor best known for movies such as Brokeback Mountain, 10 Things I Hate About You, and A Knight’s Tale was capable of playing one of the most diabolical comic-book villains of all time. Heath Ledger also had the almost impossible task of following Jack Nicholson’s memorable performance of the character in Batman (1989). That skepticism a lot of people felt started to dissipate once the first photo of Ledger as the Joker was released in August 2007. People could tell by this photo that Christopher Nolan, the director of The Dark Knight, and Ledger, were taking a different darker route with the character. This was officially confirmed in December 2007 when the first full trailer of The Dark Knight was released, and the reaction was unanimous - Heath Ledger looks incredible as the Joker and everyone became excited to see his performance. But then on January 22nd, 2008, Heath Ledger was pronounced dead from an accidental prescription drug overdose; and his eagerly awaited performance as the Joker wouldn’t be seen until July 2008. The performance eventually took on a life of its own and is arguably one of the most memorable film performances of all time; aided by The Dark Knight becoming the second highest grossing movie ever at that time, and Heath Ledger winning the best supporting actor Oscar, posthumously, for his performance.
            That story of Heath Ledger’s road to success with the role of the Joker is now the stuff of Hollywood legend. Not since James Dean has an actor become so much more celebrated and revered after his death. That wouldn’t be the case though if it wasn’t for good cause. After his death, Ledger’s performance as the Joker was hyped up to the max. In most cases over-hyping and getting that excited about something almost always leads to disappointment. This was not the case when The Dark Knight was released in July 2008. Critics and audiences universally loved the movie, scoring an extremely impressive 94% rating on (a movie review compilation site) and it was the highest grossing opening weekend for movie ever at the time earning $158 million. It was also agreed by critics and audiences that Ledger’s performance was the best part of the movie and it is said to have made the movie a pop-culture event that everyone must see.
            So what was so great about this performance that made it deserve all these accolades and universal praise for it? There were those who thought it was because of the fact that Heath Ledger had tragically died at the young age of 28. [That Ledger had now become a Hollywood saint with everyone jumping on the bandwagon eulogizing his performance.] They were proven dead wrong when they actually saw the performance. Ledger’s performance as the Joker is a case when an actor is able to completely disappear as the character and almost become unrecognizable. It helps too that the Joker is wearing white make-up on his face and green hair throughout the movie, which gives the actor more opportunities.  Ledger commented about this saying, “There's something about the metaphor to work behind a mask and from within a mask always gives you the license to do whatever you want or the freedom, free of feeling like you're being judged or viewed and so I'm literally wearing a mask now which empowers me twice as much to kind of feel free and feel unrestrained here and it's pretty exciting.” (link)
            The Joker is one of the most unrestrained psychopathic characters ever depicted in all of fiction; he’s: unpredictable, smart, violent, chaotic, and downright evil. To portray and make sure all those aspects of his character came through, Ledger prepared himself thoroughly and meticulously detailed his performance. To prepare for the character Ledger reportedly hid himself away in a hotel room for about 6-weeks, where he researched the psychology of the character and developed every mannerism the Joker would have including his voice and, most importantly, his laugh. Ledger had this to say about his preparation process, “It’s a combination of reading all the comic books I could that were relevant to the script and then just closing my eyes and meditating on it, …(I) locked myself away, formed a little diary and experimented with voices — it was important to try to find a somewhat iconic voice and laugh. I ended up landing more in the realm of a psychopath — someone with very little to no conscience towards his acts. He’s just an absolute sociopath, a cold-blooded, mass-murdering clown, and Chris has given me free rein. Which is fun, because there are no real boundaries to what The Joker would say or do. Nothing intimidates him, and everything is a big joke.”
            The hard work and joy Ledger put into his character is certainly evident and translates to the screen when we see his performance. The Joker talks in a grim mischievous voice that always gravitating from a low to a high pitch that’s very unsettling and captivating. In the most noticeable, unnerving and entrancing mannerism that Ledger added to his interpretation of the Joker is that he’s always licking and smacking his lips. This aspect of the character shows that the Joker is always relishing and enjoying the mayhem he’s causing. The Joker is almost always very animated in his body movements and hand gestures whenever he’s on screen. He moves in a very distinctive manner, in a sly gauntly way. This makes the character more threatening as if he’s ready to attack you at any moment. If you add all these elements together:  the frightening appearance of clown with scars carved into his face, the mischievous unrecognizable voice, the tic of licking his lips with his tongue, and his unpredictable sly movements and gestures; what you get is one of most frightening and fascinating villains ever to be seen on film, at least since Dr. Hannibal Lecter.
            Some people have even suggested that Ledger immersed himself so much in the role of the Joker, that it eventually lead to his state of mind that caused his untimely death. I find that idea absurd because, first, Ledger was already halfway thru filming another role (in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus), and because he’s a professional actor. The director of The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan, said this in response, "I'll answer that simply to say that diminishes his skill as an actor. The job of an actor is someone who takes on a character and distinguishes between real-life and a character. Anyone who's spent time on a movie set knows that it's a very artificial environment and the great skills of someone like Heath Ledger or Christian Bale, all these guys, is that they can be jobbing along in a workday environment and then when the camera rolls they can find this great character." (link 
            While it’s impossible to know for certain; I’d say it’s likely that Heath Ledger’s interpretation of the Joker would’ve been just as acclaimed if he hadn’t died. This is a performance that’s too loud, unique, frightening, revolutionary and real for it not to be noticed. Of course, the performance would not have been as scrutinized and hyped up if Ledger hadn’t died and people would’ve been more focused on the character rather than the actor. But when a person is actually watching the movie, they’re likely to get so caught up in it  that they'll forget that it’s Heath Ledger (dead actor) playing the Joker and just see the character. Only a performance as strong and distinctive as Ledger’s Joker could have made that possible.
            I predict in the many years to come, that people will always remember Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker as one of the most terrifying villains ever created for film. The fact that this was the last role Ledger completed before he tragically died will have become an afterthought, but the performance will always live on.

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